Wednesday, February 27, 2008

A Geography—A Map of Place

Geography of the soul—geography of place—recalling particular places rather than being sucked into the vortex of desiring the past in lieu of the present. I am all that I’ve seen and imprinted on my mind and spirit. Is that it? Do some places leave an indelible imprint? It is not a longing for a different locale. It is acknowledging that I do not create myself without the raw materials of the past. Locales —the seams of place—sewn into the fabric of me. In every place there’s an intersection between the particulars of place and my rubbing against the place—voyeur, or participant? Isn’t it possible to passively remain on the fringes? Even the fringes leave an imprint. Love or dislike place—it still shadows you and leaves a trail.

New York City—the Bronx. Say those words and I create a collage. I see the Paradise Theater on the Grand Concourse. I don’t recall the size of the theatre and only sat on a plush faux velvet theatre seat on two occasions. Both times I scrunched down in the seat and stared at the overhead ceiling and its array of sparkling stars and moving simulated clouds. Later on I read that the theatre seated 4,000 and had a baroque décor. In the Bronx where I lived, crowded with apartment buildings nudging up against one another, an elevated train on stilts, coal fed incinerators spewing smoke into the sky, stars hid. The stars on the Paradise ceiling opened up a world of wide expanses. The first time I went out west and stared up I thought of the Paradise ceiling. That ceiling gave me a taste of an open sky.

I see the drugstore down the hill. This is where I went with my father to check television batteries. A large unwieldy machine tested the innards of a television. Around the corner — a Chinese Laundry where my father’s shirts were laundered, starched, folded with a cardboard insert and then wrapped in brown paper. Of course there were those numbered pink and yellow tickets. And next to the Chinese Laundry a small kosher butcher shop where the owner stood behind the counter and chickens hung on hooks on the back wall. Do I recall the feathers? It must be so because my grandmother plucked the chicken at the kitchen sink and rubbed the chicken with coarse kosher salt.

Before the large grocery store moved into the neighborhood, Minnie’s Grocery supplied the staples. I loved when Minnie used a pair of pinchers at the end of a long stick to nab a box on the uppermost shelf. Her Breakstone’s Cream Cheese came in wood boxes and I, along with all my friends, waited patiently for a box. When the new larger A & P grocery store opened up my mother switched because of the lower prices. That’s where I first learned about some of the horrors of the war. It was a hot summer and women wore short sleeves. We were on line waiting to pay for our groceries; a woman in front of us took off her jacket and wiped away the perspiration on her forehead. When she lifted her arm I saw numbers on her arm.

“Why,” I asked my mother, “does she have numbers on her arm?”

My mother shushed me and said “Later.” Later she told me that I was too young to know of those things. I wasn’t yet of an age that required two numbers.

“Don’t stare,” she said. I don’t remember much more about that grocery store because Minnie lowered her prices and many of her old customers returned.

Geography of the soul—

Friday, February 22, 2008

The Book "Parlor"

Whenever I look at some of my old poetry books I’m propelled back to when I first moved to New England. I missed the used bookstores I had frequented in Maryland.

One of my favorite haunts had shelves stacked with poetry books and milk cartons jam-packed with well worn small press poetry magazines and chapbooks—some were yellow, others fell apart unless handled gingerly, while more than a few gave off a musty aroma. This was a treasure trove. The name of the store was nondescript and easily forgotten. I referred to it as The Bookstore Up Two Flights of Stairs and To The Right. The owner fashioned himself as a philosopher, spinner of literary tales, and a shrewd purchaser of books at library sales and yard sales.

Moving meant a new geography and a place within that landscape. One day while driving around, foraging for new landmarks, I passed a small house with a lackluster exterior and shutters hanging askew. Outside the front door a small hand painted sign hung on a pole —Books. The license plate on the blue sedan in the driveway, a vanity plate, spelled out Books1. I parked in front in a spot barely able to accommodate two small cars. When I entered the house a woman called out, “To your right.” To my right was a small room with floor to ceiling bookshelves crammed with books.

“Come in, don’t just stand there if you love books. You may call me Mrs. Peters and this is my parlor, which I found of little use and transformed it into a bookstore.”

Mrs. Peters sat behind a mahogany table. She resembled a character out of a Dicken’s novel.

“I’m just looking,” I said and then added, “I’m new here and have been looking for a used bookstore.”

“This is not a used bookstore. It is a place for serious readers.”

Despite my gaffe we became friends. Her age —“Closer to ninety is all you need to know…” In time she told me of being taken to China when she was ten months old and living there until the age of eighteen. “My parents were missionaries. A useless, intrusive occupation.” Mrs Peters held strong convictions about the right of people to believe in “doorknobs or hobgoblins.”

I quickly discovered her two long poetry shelves. Books on that shelf had a long shelf life. I found a number of books that had been there for ten years and the price you paid was the one on the back cover. I bought the Galway Kinnell ten years after its original soft cover publishing date and purchased a 1970 copy of 19 Masks for a Naked Poet. It was Nancy Willard’s first book, published as a chapbook, no ISBN, and a run of 1200 copies . Yesterday I checked a used book site and discovered that my copy now sells for $80.00.

Mrs Peters kept a three-inch thick ledger where she wrote down each sale, the customer’s name and any pertinent information. If you asked her for a suggestion she wrote down the book she had suggested. Months later she might ask a particularly penetrating question about the book. Her acuity and recall for specifics bordered on total recall. Mrs. Peters loved discussing “good books”.

Over a year’s time I purchased most of her poetry books. “Now imagine,” she said, “if I didn’t keep all those books we might not have so many visits.”

Visiting her “parlor” of books was a bit like walking back in time. She never purchased a cash register nor did the metal box she used as a receptacle for money have a lock. When she left the house to go on a short errand she left the door open and the box and ledger on the table.

And it wasn’t only old books that occupied her shelves. Mrs. Peters kept up but no longer had enough money to expand her inventory. She’d borrow a book from the library and if it deserved a place on her shelf she wrote a review—and thumb tacked the paper to the wall. These were times before Amazon captured the public’s fancy. Several people ordered expensive texts from Mrs. Peters and one local doctor kept a standing order for any new books from his list of four favored mystery writers.

Once when Mrs Peters was away for a Saturday she offered me a chance to play book lady for the day.

“Don’t drink coffee when you’re reading one of the new books,” she said before she left for the day. Mrs. Peters considered all her books new. “And,” she added, “don’t forget to write down the name of anyone who buys a book.”

“One more thing, I don’t have enough money to pay you for the day. How would three books do?”

One woman bought a red leather covered PRÆTERITA by John Ruskin and published by George Allen of London. This small treasure had sat on the shelf for over a decade. Mrs. Peter’s discrete pencil mark in the corner listed the date the book first entered the “parlor.”

Thumbing through the book and after finding and quoting one Ruskin line, “ …accuracy of diction means accuracy of sensation, and precision of accent, precision of feeling.” she said, “I’ve always wanted this book and this edition.” I don’t recall her name, but I dutifully wrote both her name and comment in the ledger.

That day three people bought books. At the end of the day I closed the door, but not before putting the metal box on a shelf where it stayed on Sundays and after hours. I shut the ledger and placed a note on top. “The Ruskin,” I wrote, “found its owner.”

Thursday, February 14, 2008


Several days ago a young man was jogging and was hit by a car. It was all a terrible accident. But this time I knew the young man. He had been a student in my class for three years. We label students in school—the high achievers, the athletes, the socially popular, the doers and the movers.

Frankie didn't fit neatly into any one category. He saw the world differently. While others made easy conversation he was awkward in groups, while others could interpret and analyze information —his world was more concrete. Making eye contact was something he learned. He had a sense of humor and a willingness to keep at a task until he nailed it.

The photo is of an optical illusion created by a series of glass bottles. It is difficult to know the numeric difference between actual bottles and real bottles..Frankie's ability to do puzzles was phenomenal. He once solved a wood puzzle that had baffled my home room and a number of teachers—and once having completed the task he could replicate it over and over.

On Friday afternoons I played a word game with a small group of students. If not for Taylor's incredible luck drawing the right combination of cards to make words, Frankie might have won all hands. Frankie was the one who convinced me to read a horror book, watch a wrestling match because he wanted to write a paper about wrestling. The first time his dad took Frankie and a friend to see a match he told me in precise detail about every match, every garment, all the audience reactions—and when he left the house, how long it took to get there and when they returned.

I loved watching him grow and eventually get into all mainstream classes with some support. At the end of the eighth grade I suggested to his parents that I thought that the vocational school might be a better choice than the academic high school—but Frankie wanted the high school because that's where his friends planned to go and he wanted to join the wrestling team.

Not only did he join the wrestling team and begin to win, he won a state championship in his weight class. Two weeks ago I read about his season : 24 wins—1 loss and he was co-captain of the team. Sunday I learned that he had been accepted to college.

When I attended the wake Sunday afternoon I waited on line for forty minutes. Wrestling teams from all over the state were there to pay their respect. Inside dozens of flower arrangements from teams.

I finally reached the family and Frankie's father grabbed hold of my hand, "Oh you would have been so proud of Frankie. I know you were worried about how he would do in high school. He was so successful. And he was accepted in college."

"I was proud of Frankie," I said. "This is so incredible—all these people."

A life ended too soon. Way too soon.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008


Waiting: In the morning waiting for the newspaper to arrive— Waiting for repairs, a letter, a phone call, an answer, a test result. I’ve waited in an office, to find out what will happen, to see if there’s a change in direction, an epiphany. And sometimes waiting is easy—read a book, drink green tea, relax. Other times it is angst on ice. No control. Waiting for the storm to end or waiting for a call that doesn’t come, creates disquietude. Maybe if I play my cards differently, retreat, change my approach, try again, the ending will differ.

Two weeks ago I made a call and the robot voice on the other end said, “Your call will be answered in the order it was received.” What does that mean? What order? How many people are in front of you? I waited and waited and waited and then I hung up thinking that at some point the robot disconnected me—not intentionally. I dialed again and the same robot voice gave me the same message. Thirty minutes later I decided that I had never wanted to speak to anyone.

Actually if you wait long enough you forget what you wanted in the first place. A sense of euphoria permeates every pore, a release from the anxiety of waiting—for the moment.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

I'm Blessed

Animations - heart-12

So Many Books to Read

Animations - pages turnYesterday I picked up two more books. Loving to read is an absolute gift. I've been all over, solved crimes, lived in distant places and traveled a magic carpet—and the people I've met. I wonder if there's a blessing for the start of a new book, or the discovery of a new writer.


So many stories—threads to follow. The fellow who plastered the walls of our closet after ice dam damage used my vacuum to clean up after plastering.

He had done a good job plastering, expressed himself in colourful language, and lacked a sense of time.

"I vacumn for my mother every week."
"She's on dialysis twice a week and can't do any heavy work."
"That's nice of you."
"Yeah," he said. "I was going to give her one of my kidneys,went through the blood tests and then she had a minor stroke and they said she wasn't a candidate."

"That's quite a gift."
"She's my mother. Of course I'd give her a kidney."

We speak in stories. Once upon a time...I had a student in my class whose ancestor was one of the Salem women accused of witchcraft. Once upon a time...I found myself two feet away from a coiled albino timber rattlesnake.

To be alive means to be part of the story, a player in the tale, a holder of one of the threads.